Cilantro (or coriander leaves) is probably the most divisive herb there is. Most people find it to be an inoffensive, fresh, citrus-y addition to all sorts of Eastern dishes. Then there are those in the small (but very, very loud) anti-cilantro camp.
These people aren’t just mildly averse to the herb—they loathe it. Cilantrophobes have likened the flavor to an array of disgusting things (moldy shoes and cat pee stick out as two of the worst), but most say it tastes like plain ol’ dirty dish soap. But why? What is it about cilantro that makes it taste soapy to some people? As it turns out, genetics are to blame.
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What Is Cilantro—and What Does it Taste Like?
Cilantro (also called Chinese parsley) is the leafy green part of coriander, an herb native to southern Europe, northern Africa, and southwestern Asia. While some people may think cilantro tastes bad, it actually has a fresh and citrus-y flavor. That’s why it complements flavorful Mexican and Indian dishes so well. Cilantro also has a refreshing, cooling effect—and it can help tone down the heat from a spicy meal.
Coriander vs. Cilantro
Though cilantro and coriander seeds come from the same plant—and the words are often used interchangeably—the flavors and uses couldn’t be more different. Cilantro is usually served fresh, often as a garnish. Coriander seeds, meanwhile, are typically roasted and used whole or ground. Coriander has a warm, sweet flavor and pungent aroma. It’s commonly used in Indian cooking, while cilantro is more common in Mexican, South American, and Asian cooking.
The Science Behind the Hate
Though the invention of the internet has allowed cilantro haters to voice their distaste on a larger scale than before (see: IHateCilantro.com), the herb’s flavor has always been a point of contention.
In a 2001 paper, University of Otago anthropologist Helen Leach details how cilantro became an unwanted herb in many parts of Europe, beginning in the 16th century when John Gerard called it a “stinking herbe” with “leaves of venomous quality.” Other centuries-old documents reveal that many people associated cilantro with bed bugs.
At the same time, people in other parts of the world were enjoying it in everything from chutneys to salsa.
So what gives? Can the dramatic divide over cilantro’s flavor really come down to just cultural differences?
Well, probably not. While familiarity certainly affects which foods you like and dislike, recent studies suggest that people who hate cilantro can also blame genetics—specifically the OR6A2 gene.
It all comes down to how you perceive aldehyde chemicals, organic compounds that are present in cilantro: People who have a certain variation of the OR6A2 gene think cilantro tastes like soap, while people who don’t have that variation think it tastes like, well, cilantro.
A 2012 study from the University of Toronto found that 17 percent of Caucasians disliked cilantro, while only 4 percent of Hispanics and 3 percent of people of Middle Eastern descent are anti-cilantro.
Learning to Love Cilantro
If you’re one of the unlucky people who can’t stomach the taste of cilantro, all hope is not lost! Scientists think that it’s possible to overcome the aversion. Bruising the herb through crushing, mincing, or pulverizing (like in this Spicy Parsley-Cilantro Sauce recipe) releases some of the soapy-tasting enzymes. Cooking cilantro—instead of eating it raw—is also thought to reduce the soapiness.
If you truly can’t stand the taste of the controversial herb, try substituting parsley for cilantro. This works especially well if the goal is to garnish the dish, and not to replace flavor—parsley and cilantro look remarkably similar. Dill, sometimes called Lao coriander, can also serve as a replacement.
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